Are both Democrats and Republicans alienating young voters?

The crucial millennial demographic could be up for grabs

Young voters
(Image credit: (Darren Hauck/Getty Images))

Conventional wisdom assumes that Democrats — the party of gay marriage, higher education reform, and the environment — have a lock on young voters. But while the GOP has deeply serious obstacles to overcome if it wants to win younger voters, the millennial generation may be more up for grabs than many people think.

Let's start with the Republicans, whose problems with the younger generation stem from the party's far-right positions on social issues, poor branding, and a perpetual conservative echo chamber. Former President George H.W. Bush speechwriter Mary Kate Carey outlines the GOP's challenges:

Only 18 percent of millennials call themselves members of the GOP; more millennials are Democrats (31 percent); the most (45 percent) are Independents. When I teach college classes, I find that very few college students will admit in public to being Republican... It's time for the GOP to make itself the party of ideas again, especially when dealing with young people. There's a real opportunity for making a fact-based case for flexible, free-market, limited-government solutions to challenges important to the next generation. Let's hear about a Republican alternative to ObamaCare, about urban enterprise zones, a new tax code, school choice, and reforming Medicare and Social Security. [U.S. News]

Republicans are aware they have a big problem but are doing little to fix it. Among the many ignored bits of advice in the GOP's famous, costly March 2013 "autopsy" report was a call to make the Republican tent bigger and more appealing to young people.

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In June, the party received an even bigger warning when the College Republican National Committee issued a report telling the GOP it faced a "dismal" situation with young voters, due to perceptions that it was "closed-minded, racist, rigid," and "old-fashioned." It noted that Obama won 60 percent of the youth vote in 2012 and Ronald Reagan won 59 percent in 1984. And it didn't mince words:

We've become the party that will pat you on your back when you make it, but won't offer you a hand to help you get there... If we don't believe that Republicans are the 'fend for yourself' party, then it's time for us to explain why — and to show our work... Our research finds both a dismal present situation and an incredible opportunity for turning the GOP brand around. [CBS News]

But that report has been like a real autopsy: There has been absolutely no movement from the object of study. The party actually moved further right and requires those wanting a future in it to pass litmus tests. George P. Bush, Jeb Bush's 37-year-old son and nephew of former President George W. Bush, pointedly suggested to the AP that he's not like the other Bushes. The younger Bush, running for land commissioner of Texas, is taking care to align himself with the Tea Party.

[R]ather than campaigning on the mainstream Republicanism embodied by the family name, Bush says he's "a movement conservative" more in line with the tea party... As if to underscore the point, he says he draws the most inspiration not from the administrations of his grandfather, George H. W. Bush, or his uncle, George W. Bush, but from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who engineered the 1994 Republican takeover of that chamber. [AP]

All that leaves the lane wide open for Democrats, right? Not so fast. Democrats have their own super-size problem: A USA Today/Pew Research Center poll finds that Obama is losing the millennials, who voted for him by a two-to-one margin in his two presidential campaigns. The media narrative was that the Democrat Party was poised to capture an entire generation of voters because of its policies, more upbeat message, and more liberal stand on social issues. But that's not a certainty:

Forty-five percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans say they approve of the way Obama is handling his job; 46 percent disapprove of his job performance, according to a year-end USA Today/Pew Research Center Poll. The president's approval rating with young Americans — which stood at 67 percent just ahead of his second inauguration less than a year ago — now mirrors the general population, according to the poll... [The] findings mirror other recent polling that suggests Obama has seen his approval rating slide with young Americans. [USA Today]

Many factors explain the drop: A rolling NSA spying scandal that has hurt Obama with his liberal base; the rocky rollout of, as well as an individual mandate that requires younger, healthier voters to buy insurance; a high unemployment rate that particularly affects younger workers; and growing income inequality.

Indeed, earlier this month a poll by the Harvard University Institute of Politics found a majority of the millennials would favor getting Obama out of office.

The survey, part of a unique 13-year study of the attitudes of young adults, finds that America's rising generation is worried about its future, disillusioned with the U.S. political system, strongly opposed to the government's domestic surveillance apparatus, and drifting away from both major parties. "Young Americans hold the president, Congress, and the federal government in less esteem almost by the day, and the level of engagement they are having in politics are also on the decline," reads the IOP's analysis of its poll.

"Millennials are losing touch with government and its programs because they believe government is losing touch with them." [National Journal]

To many young voters, Democrats talk the talk but aren't walking the walk. Republicans aren't even talking the talk, but the latest evidence suggests that the millennial generation remains open to being swayed.

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Joe Gandelman is a syndicated columnist for Cagle Cartoons and is the editor of The Moderate Voice blog.